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The Indian and the Cowboys

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This is a catch-up post; our story from just a few days ago. Sometimes—on the road or in the air—we’re travelers, sometimes explorers, sometimes we are simply tourists but, in the best of all possible worlds we are first and foremost students.

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The Crazy Horse Monument and Mount Rushmore nicely meld the tourism/student functions. In a way they are oddly juxtaposed, the enormous romanticized face of the brave warrior and the smaller coterie of dead white men. In another way the two monuments represent a big swath of American history—the Indian and the cowboys. Visiting them reminded me again to always be a student.

CRAZY HORSE: The Indian is Crazy Horse, fearless and fierce on the racing stallion—emerging from his mountain. According to the guide as we bus to the foot of the mountain, this monument is higher taller bigger grander in every way than the cowboys down the road (actually only one of the presidents was a cowboy but they all acted like Roughriders when it came to the Indians).

It is a good idea to go to the Crazy Horse monument first so that the rightful order of things is established. First came the Indians, then the cowboys! Crazy Horse was an Oglala Lakota warrior who fought the U.S. government over control of his people’s lands—including defeating Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Crazy Horse was murdered by a military guard after peacefully surrendering to U.S. troops a year later.

The obsessive man who was probably the major reason this monument is being built at all should be acknowledged. Korczak Ziolkowski was a determined and talented orphan whose obsession with the Crazy Horse monument overrode everything else in this life—although he apparently had a satisfactory marriage with a still-living devoted wife and ten children, many of whom continue work on the monument. Ziolkowski was a rugged individualist of the first order from purchasing the land (which belongs to the Crazy Horse Foundation now) to working almost alone with inferior tools in the early years of monument-creating to insisting that no tax dollars ever be used on the monument. The Crazy Horse monument might be considered an anti-establishment icon of the first order, built by an anti-government guy in honor of another anti-government guy.

Of course Mount Rushmore is quite the opposite–built for/by/about the federal government. The privately funded monument versus the federally funded Mount Rushmore. Mistrust of government versus utilization of government toward good ends!  By good ends I mean funding and maintaining a magnificent park. However all of the four presidents included on the mountainside are implicated in stealing the very land (and/or all of the other lands owned by the Native Americans) on which the monument rests.

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MOUNT RUSHMORE: Everything considered these U.S. Presidents probably did more good than harm overall. But are these even the right four? According to my not-very-learned take on Presidential greatness I can’t think of any who deserve the honor more—although whether any giant faces should be defacing the Black Hills is a matter of some controversy (see later article).

Washington definitely. The more biographies I read about him, the more I admire him. Yes, he did keep slaves (find me a continent or a race or a culture that hasn’t—not to say it’s right, just to say it’s unfortunately very common) and apparently he was not the world’s most skillful soldier but he was smart, steady, steadfast and knew how critical it would be to establish a ‘democratic’ form of government from the beginning—no trappings of royalty allowed. He also understood the importance of having a strong federal system.  So yes to GW on the monument.

Jefferson? Jefferson probably. The original states’ righter. Exploration. Ever westward. Jefferson on the side of the common man/farmer/shopkeeper versus the patrician/wealthy/landowner. Jefferson was the first journalistic attack dog in the long string that has followed but he was also a serious intellectual and quite dashing in thought and deed. I have not read the serious biographies of him yet which await me on a shelf back home.

Lincoln also definitely. Whatever percentage of his quest was dedicated to freeing the slaves versus maintaining the Union, waging the Civil War was quite probably the most courageous act of American history. That he was also a wheeler dealer politician and looked like Daniel Day Lewis is okay too. Lincoln, like Washington, appears to fit the definition of ‘honorable leader’ by any standards.

Teddy Roosevelt, yes I guess so. I am a TR fan for the following reasons. He allowed his wild daughter Alice to be herself; he was a ‘good’ Republican, a fighter against corporate corruption; and he loved the west and wrote extensively about and on behalf of the environment. On the other hand I am not sure someone as war-loving or who spent as much time slaughtering wild animals around the world deserves to gaze forever over these peaceful hills. His park just north of here in North Dakota, is a beautiful mix of oddly shaped rock formations, woods and streams and has such a sense of the rough, powerful, loving and flawed man about it.






The following piece from the New York Times came up when I googled Crazy Horse and it expresses some of the unease we all feel over grandiose monuments, whether the people or incidents they honor deserve it and whether their placement is appropriate.

September 2, 2009/Editorial Observer  Waiting for Crazy Horse by Lawrence Downes  They dynamited Crazy Horse’s mountain again the other day, sending 4,400 tons of granite crashing onto a growing pile of Black Hills rubble. An eruption of dust ripped across the mountainside like a yanked zipper. There was a flash, then a boom that made a thousand people three-quarters of a mile away jump at once, then applaud.

It was one of the biggest blasts yet in a project that has seen a lot of them in 60 years, though afterward the mountain looked pretty much the same. The carving of this South Dakota peak into a mounted likeness of Crazy Horse, the great Sioux leader, has been going on since 1948. It’s a slow job. After all this time, only his face is complete. The rest — his broad chest and flowing hair, his outstretched arm, his horse — is still encased in stone. Someday, long after you are dead, it may finally emerge.

The memorial, outside Rapid City, is only a few miles from Mount Rushmore. Both are tributes to greatness. One is a federal monument and national icon, the other a solitary dream. A sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, worked at it alone for more than 30 years, roughing out the shape while acquiring a mighty beard and a large family. He died in 1982 and is buried in front of the mountain. His widow, Ruth, lives at the site and continues the mission with her many children.

I have to admit: Mount Rushmore bothers me. It was bad enough that white men drove the Sioux from hills they still hold sacred; did they have to carve faces all over them too? It’s easy to feel affection for Mount Rushmore’s strange grandeur, but only if you forget where it is and how it got there. To me, it’s too close to graffiti.

The Crazy Horse Memorial has some of the same problems: it is most definitely an unnatural landmark. Some of the Indians I met in South Dakota voiced their own misgivings, starting with the fact that it presumes to depict a proud man who was never captured in a photograph or drawn from life.

Kelly Looking Horse, a Sioux artist I talked with as he sewed a skin drum at Mount Rushmore, said there were probably better ways to help Indians than a big statue. He also grumbled that many of the crafts for sale at the memorial were made by South Americans and Navajos and sold to people who wouldn’t know the differences among Indian tribes, or care. Leatrice (Chick) Big Crow, who runs a Boys and Girls Club at the Pine Ridge Reservation, said she thought the memorial was one of those things that could go on swallowing money and effort forever.

But two other Sioux artists — Charlie Sitting Bull, a weaver of intricate beadwork, and Del Iron Cloud, a watercolorist — said they were grateful at least that the memorial gave them free space to show and sell their work. As for the loss of the Black Hills, Mr. Iron Cloud told me, without rancor, that there wasn’t much to be done about it now.

Looking up at the mountain in the golden light of late afternoon, it was hard not to be impressed, even moved, by this effort to honor the memory of a people this country once tried mightily to erase. I came away reminded that eternity is not on our side. The nearby South Dakota Badlands, made of soft and crumbling sediment and ash, will be gone in a geological instant.

The day may sooner come when most human works have worn away as well. When all is lost to rust and rot, what remains may be two enormous granite oddities in the Great Plains: Four men’s heads mysteriously huddled cheek to cheek — a forgotten album cover. And, far bigger, a full-formed Indian on a horse, his eyes ablaze, his long arm pointing out over his beloved Black Hills.

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